Two final quarter tries by Harrow School took them past Tonbridge School by a 13 point margin, after the Kent side had twice led early on in each half.
Harrow came into this game after an unbeaten run of six wins this term which sees them at the top of the Daily Mail Schools Rugby Trophy, while Tonbridge had lost only to Wellington and have reached the RFU Schools Champions Trophy semi-finals with a midweek victory over Eton. The home side were able to field the same starting XV that had beaten Millfield in that competition, with the return of second row George Sinclair and full back Suan Saro-Wiwa. Harrow were able to call on an impressive array of Premiership Academy players, including England internationals Reuben Bird-Tulloch, Elliott Obatoyinbo and Jack Glover.
With Tonbridge’s 50 pitch looking in excellent condition but with a chilly northerly breeze, Harrow kicked off, playing up the slight slope. However they conceded two early penalties which gave the home side territorial advantage, and it was Tonbridge who scored first. After left wing Oliver Ward had twice shown elusive running skills, the Tonbridge forward pack drove into the left corner and second row Nico Lykiardopoulos crashed over, fly half David Wilkinson adding the conversion from the touchline.
Harrow were quick to respond, looking impressive going forward, with backs and forwards combining to recycle possession and make progress into the Tonbridge 22, before creating an overlap for right wing Jordan who squeezed in at the corner. The conversion was a difficult one for a right footed kicker, but fly half Manu Vunipola’s kick was successful hitting the left post before dropping over the crossbar.
The momentum had now shifted in favour of the visitors, with their back row forwards repeatedly making hard yards and looking after the ball well as they moved through the phases. After open side flanker Sean Reffell had shown impressive strength to break tackles and further driving by the forwards had taken play deep into the left corner, No. 8 Andrew Christie dived over. Kicking duties now passed to the scrum half and he added the extras.
Tonbridge redoubled their efforts after these setbacks, their forwards competing effectively at the breakdown and driving close to the line, where an offload to Sinclair saw the second row force his way over for his side’s second try. Wilkinson’s conversion attempt didn’t seem cleanly struck but it just had the legs to clear the bar via the right post to even up the score at 14-14. From the restart it looked as if the home side might retake the lead, with Wilkinson and inside centre Ben Devaney combining on the right, but possession was lost.
The Harrow forwards continued to get across the gain line, with Christie carrying effectively, and further effective ball retention enabled them to reach the 5m line, but the defence held firm and Tonbridge captain and tight head prop George Head combined with right wing Harry Rees to relieve the pressure. Harrow were by now getting the measure of Tonbridge’s kicking game and a piece of individual brilliance by Glover opened up the Tonbridge defence, as the blind side flanker broke tackles on a 30m run, before offloading to outside centre Zach Ellis who scored in the left corner. Although the conversion was missed, with the referee blowing for half time, the timing of the score gave it an increased psychological impact.
Half-time: Tonbridge School 14-19 Harrow school
Tonbridge began the second half with evident determination to overcome the deficit. With Matteo Petrozzi coming on for Charlie Mullins at scrum half, a change of game plan was apparent, quick recycling from the base of the ruck replacing box kicking as the preferred tactic. A penalty conceded by Harrow allowed Wilkinson to set up a line-out and maul in the left corner and a sustained period of pressure on the Harrow line ensued. Although further penalties were conceded by Harrow, and Tonbridge successfully set up crash ball for their big forwards, Head and Sinclair to the fore, the defence held firm with excellent line speed.
Eventually, after a brief respite for the defence after good work by Reffell, Tonbridge found a way through, loose head prop Blaize Mott breaking through to dive over on the right. With Wilkinson’s conversion successful, the home side, to the delight of their sizeable group of supporters had retaken the lead. This was short-lived, as Harrow showed their ability to strike from deep, Vunipola broke through tackles in midfield and offloaded to his loose head prop, whose ball carrying and athleticism had already impressed, and he broke into the 22. Although the Tonbridge cover tackling was effective, the ball was quickly recycled and Glover scored under the posts.
Harrow were now in the ascendant, and after Glover had ripped the ball from the Tonbridge forwards, a big run by Christie took play into the Tonbridge 22 and the Harrow forwards drove over but were held up. With the ensuing scrum won, a try seemed likely but Head intervened to make the turnover and although the ball went forward from his hand, Tonbridge took the scrum against the head and were able to clear. The relief was fleeting, as Vunipola took the clearance kick and spotted space in the right corner: his perfectly judged kick was taken on the full by Jordan and although the wing was tackled just short of the line, he managed to offload to Ellis who scored his second try of the game.
With the conversion successful, Harrow were two scores clear, and they looked to increase the margin to three scores when Tonbridge were penalised on their 22 after good work by Glover. The Harrow scrum half’s kick from the tee hit the post and dropped under the bar, where Petrozzi managed to field the ball under pressure from the Harrow forwards and scrambled it to outside centre Charlie Spawforth who was able to clear.
As Tonbridge made strenuous efforts to get back on terms, the game opened up, with some big hits going in on both sides. After Spawforth and Rees had combined on the right to give the home side a glimmer of hope, the physicality of the play reached a peak when the powerful Harrow left wing, having reached full speed with ball in hand, was tackled by Head in midfield. The Tonbridge captain was left on the ground in obvious pain and the referee immediately called a halt while the paramedics carried out the necessary checks and assisted the injured player from the field: an unfortunate end to the game for Head who had been outstanding, leading by example in both attack and defence. Although play resumed, the referee blew for full time almost immediately.
This was one of the highest quality schools games that I have watched this term, at least on a par with the Abingdon vs Kirkham match. Harrow still have the chance of an unbeaten season, though they have to face some strong opponents including Wellington and Bedford. It will certainly take a strong side to stop them. Tonbridge await Tuesday’s Champions Trophy draw and will be hoping for a speedy recovery by their captain.
Full Time: Tonbridge 21-33 Harrow